Thursday, April 10, 2008


I have a friend down South who is having a terrible time putting in his garden. He has bought a brand new, old fashioned Troy Bilt tiller and it is working him to death. He got one of the last tillers made by Troy Bilt before they sold out to the the El Cheapo Conglomerate. Helluva score, but maybe not properly utilized.

He lives in the South and has an extended growing season compared to what we have in Indiana. Some days his tempertature down there in Dixie runs 30 degrees warmer than what we have up here in Yankee Land. We can not plant with any kind of surety until May 10th. In the 37 years I have been living on this land I have seen frost only one time after May 10. Pretty good odds.

But I am not here to talk about growing seasons right now. I want to talk about putting in a garden and doing it properly and with a minimum of effort.

This friend of mine was putting in a garden where there had not been anything planted in quite some time. And he was putting it in pretty hard packed clay. Not an impossible task but one calling for a little thought.

He has a good tiller but it goes lop-sided on him when he does row by row tilling. One wheel will be on the hard packed clay and the other wheel will be riding in the tilled ground of the previous past. Naturally, the wheel in the soft turned earth will ride lower. The best advice I could give him is to buy a much larger wheel for his ground breaking. Put the bigger wheel on the side that would be running through the soft ground. If anyone has a better idea please let me know.

He does not want to leave a small ridge between tilled rows. He wants the whole garden to be tilled, planted beds and walkways alike. So be it.

He has a hard time with the hardy weeds that presently grow where he wants a garden. Sometimes they will pop back up before he can get the row finished. Then he has to get a hoe or some manual device and root them out. Literally.

He has a bad leg from birth and it makes it difficult to do all this physical exertion. He is gutting it out and doing what he can. He has told me that he is going to use Round-up to give himself a break from digging out the weeds after he has tilled the soil. This is a mistake. This is a sign of someone who does not have any patience. Ground should be tilled at least 3 times before you can say you are ready to go on the ground and start a garden. Now this might not be a rule for those who have used the same garen spot for years, but it damn sure is if you are breaking new ground.

You till the ground to the full depth of your tiller the first time. The second and third time you till you only go in an inch. You do these tillings a week apart. This will get rid of the monster weeds and kill any plants that want to germinate seed after you have stirred the ground. Walk back over your tilled ground after every session and throw out the weeds that are loose and lying on the ground. Make a pile of them in a convenient spot and let them compost for your Fall application.

Once you have gone through this procedure of multiple tillings of your ground you will be ready to plant whatever will grow in your area. Do not fail to put all the plants that you can in your compost pile. It may not seem like much, but a couple of years of applying Fall compost to your dirt will make a big difference in the work you have to do to get your ground ready for a planting. If you can still find real straw I would suggest using it for your ground also. Rotten plants add humus to your soil and make it easier to work as well as make better use of any rain you might get. Naturally, a good cover crop of Winter Wheat or maybe Buckwheat will do wonders for tilling in and loosening your soil. Then things won't be so hard after a while. You will have your ground in shape for garden.

Clay is good for gardeners. Next to humus it has the most potential for attracting mineral ions that your plants can consume for their own nutition. Enriching it with decayed plants will give you more nutrients and greater water absorbtion. It's a win-win thing for the gardener.

Think about what you have to do, think what you want to do, before you charge into your garden like a herd of spooked cattle and try to do it all by main strength and ignorance. You will end up expending a lot of energy for not much product if you don't think it out first. There is a way to do things that won't ruin your back.

I am still trying to get Bruce Burdick to contribute some articles on gardening. I will pester him until he does it. I am a dedicated pesterer. I run with the big dogs in that area.

Stay alive!


1 comment:

admin said...

I am also blessed and cursed with heavy clay soil. Cursed, as you pointed out the hard work in starting a garden, blessed, as it is quite mineral nutrient rich, and good in the long run. It also provides excellent building material. Wouldn't want to be without it.

So far I have not prepared much of a garden, other things being priority, and being able to still buy food and harvest from the wild (but this year it IS a priority - TOP PRIORITY). My gardening has been mostly limited to container growing and planting out a few fruit and nut trees. The soil was particularly badly compacted where I planted the trees, but what I did was to backfill the hole I dug for the root ball with a mix of the clay, well broken up, some compost and grains of charcoal. I planted them maybe four or five years ago, and they are doing quite well for such a poor position (limited sun too). I can't be sure if the charcoal made the difference, but from what I have seen on TV and read about the terra preta (black soil) of the Amazon jungle, charcoal grit added to the soil dramatically improves the soil. It can retain moisture as well as nutrients, which don't get washed out of the soil too quickly, and also helps to aerate the soil. Here are a few links about it

To get the fine grit size of charcoal, you can put it through an old cast iron meat mincer. Not tried it myself, but seen it on a web page for making black powder, where the charcoal was first ground up to a coarse grit with the above method, and then made into a fine powder with a ball mill. Unfortunately the site is no longer up, and is not currently available in the internet archive. Hopefully the problem is temporary, as the site was absolutely fabulous. Maybe one of you know about it, and maybe know if it has been moved, or the owner wrote a book - it was called (the link is actually the link to the list of pages on the internet archive) and all about survival and self-reliant living with masses of practical info. The site was only up for a short time, but had a couple hundred or more pages. Make a note of the site and check occasionally with the internet archive, it is well worth pursuing. The owner is called Dennis Wynne, and is from Texas, lives on a farm called Covenant Acres. If you happen to know him, please beg him to renew the site.

OK, back to soil. A few other things I read about starting a garden in hard clay is to use soil busting plants, one being Jerusalem Artichokes (though could be invasive), another one I read about was Snowberry (not a great deal of use for anything though), and Alfalfa, amongst many more. Alfalfa is also a green manure, so may be a good choice. The method I used for planting trees, i.e. only digging a small hole where the plant is going, back-filling with a compost and charcoal mix, can also be used for other plants. That way you are only digging where the actual plant is going, and every year more ground is thus improved. Its the eat-an-elephant-one-bite-at-a-time method. If you plant in succession and under-crop, you can get away with less land, and therefor less work tilling. It may be worth getting a book on Permaculture (PC), as PC is designed for maximum yield and minimum work, at least long-term. It also advocates growing more perennials, as that also means less work in the long run. But however you do it, do get a garden in this year, looks like the S is starting to HTF.